Practice Makes Perfect

Inside Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker rehearsal

img_7571Dance rehearsal smells like feet and moist leotards. There’s nothing elegant about it. When the dancers work hard, improvising corrections on-the-fly from choreographers and ballet mistresses, there is a locker-room funk suspended in the air from sweat-dampened dance clothes, breath and many bodies moving in one studio classroom.

So it was the night we caught up with Next Generation Ballet midway through their Nutcracker rehearsal schedule (which started in September) in room 302 of the Patel Conservatory. We sat in on a first run-through of Act II: Land of the Sweets (you’ll know it as the dance-of-the-sugar-plum-fairy part if you’re not familiar with the ballet) where all levels assembled: the adorable tots performing roles of caterpillars, the beginning and intermediate dancers in corps de ballet roles supporting the advanced dancers in solos (you’re in for a treat with the technical skill of the female NGB dancers) and more challenging small group parts (as the quartet of males performing the knee-punishing “Russian Dance”).

Rehearsals highlight the behind-the-scenes grit and grind that comprise a dancer’s life. In rehearsal, we see the dancers fall out of a triple pirouette, spinning to their shins. They slip on their red ribbons, create slapstick traffic jams exiting the stage and grimace as ballet mistress Ivonne Lemus yells corrections over the music, pushing dancers to extend into a higher diagonal in a leap. Artistic Director Philip Neal, decked out in the official NGB Nutcracker t-shirt, bobbed his head in time, barely blinking as he assessed timing, execution, phrasing, and technique during the deceptively organized chaos.

img_7598The excitement of catching a rehearsal at this stage—the moves and sequences are there but not quite mastered to perfection—is witnessing the work it takes to make a dance, with its stories and characters carried on a platform of technical physical challenge, congeal. As patrons of the arts, we’re often privy to the finished product, the flawless execution of art at the point where the dancers make the moves look easy.

Ellie Borick, 16, dances the Snow Queen and Dewdrop. “I love doing these roles. It’s challenging artistically and technically, but I have to get the role right and look beautiful doing it,” she laughs. “I’m excited to see the whole ballet come together. There’s so much color and life. When we finally get to put on our costumes and see each other in costumes, it gets very exciting, and I can’t wait for that.”

Eliot Wallace, 15, performs as one of the Chinese Dancers in the international section. In NGB’s interpretation, they incorporate 7-foot long red ribbons, which they must also twirl in a separate choreography to match their ballet sequences. “At this stage, we are working out not getting the ribbons tangled with each other, to make sure we keep the ribbon moving,” he says. “Right now, we know everything we have to do. But we still have kinks to work out, and we have to add a layer of expression to our performances.”

“Tonight is our first night running through the whole Act II,” says 17-year-old ballerina Amy Wilson. “We’ll be working to make it smoother. Timing is a focus at this point, making sure people know when to go on, how to get off stage.”

The dancers, unflagging in their spirits about fine-tuning an exhausting and demanding full ballet, draw together as a company, often applauding each other for particularly tough sequences (gawd the fouettes and pirouettes), and erupting in amazement at the jaw-dropping tumbling passes by the Acrobats. (We, too, were agape. See video above.)

Luke Guiterrez, 11, takes on several roles throughout the ballet, and you will see him first as Fritz, the little brother, and later as a Soldier and as part of the Polichinelle, the children who scamper around the Mother Matroyshka Dolls, the always delightful life-sized Russian nesting dolls. He is something of a cherished younger cast member and sums up the experience rather well:  “When you have a bunch of practices together and work so hard, when the show ends you wish it would keep going.”

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Left to right: Amy Wilson, Ellie Borick, Luke Guiterrez and Eliot Wallace.

Lizzie Borden Took an Acts

Performing arts adaptations of one of America’s most grisly and haunting murder stories

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Portrait of Lizzie Borden, circa 1889.

The facts are simple.

On Aug. 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found dead in their Falls River, Mass., home from multiple hatchet wounds. Police found no sign of a struggle, no convincing murder weapon, no bloody clothes on any possible suspect—even the one tried for the murders, Andrew’s younger daughter Lizzie.

Lizzie’s case stood as the 19th century’s version of the O.J. Simpson trial, feeding the public’s imagination and raising countless speculations about motives, what really happened and a friend’s testimony stating she saw Lizzie burning a “paint-stained” dress three days after the murders. Even though the jury acquitted her, Lizzie Borden galvanized into a horror legend guilty of the crime, spending the rest of her life as a social outcast and ghosting into history as an axe-wielding, Victorian psychopath who continues to provide fertile ground for storytellers of all artistic genres.

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Colleen Cherry plays Lizzie Borden in Jobsite Theater’s rock musical production of LIZZIE (photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.).

Lizzie Borden’s legend, staged at The Straz this month by Jobsite Theater as the killer rock musical LIZZIE, features one of the latest stabs at adapting this gruesome, fascinating episode for the stage. LIZZIE features an all-female “riot-grrrl” band with Lizzie and Co. belting out musical metal as they perform a rock concert version of the events from Lizzie’s point of view. LIZZIE runs in the Jaeb Theater from Oct. 12-Nov. 6.

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Left: The Boston Ballet’s 1972 production of Fall River Legend (photo: King Douglas). Right: American Ballet Theatre’s Fall River Legend, 2007 (photo: Lois Greenfield).

But before this current version, ballet choreographer extraordinaire Agnes deMille took a whack at capturing the complex social and emotional subtext surrounding Lizzie’s life. Her dance version, which ends in a guilty verdict, examined Lizzie’s relationship with the local priest, her complicated feelings toward her father and stepmother and the role of the small-town mindset. DeMille’s invention, premiered by American Ballet Theatre to a cinematic score by Morton Gould in 1954, arrived as an instant classic called Fall River Legend. The piece entered the repertory of other major ballet powerhouses including Dance Theatre of Harlem and Paris Opera Ballet.

The boring real-life outcome of Lizzie’s innocent verdict also provided a problem for another adaptation 11 years later when City Opera of New York transcribed the tale to the optimal form for murdering psychopaths: opera. Jack Beeson’s titular opera was conducted by none other than Maestro Anton Coppola, who later became the inaugural artistic director of the Straz Center’s Opera Tampa. In Beeson’s version, the plot centers around Lizzie’s psychological abuse by her father and stepmother, casting Lizzie as a tragic figure with little choice of escape except by removing the forces of unpleasantness. In short, administering the 81 whacks reported in the jump-rope rhyme. (“Lizzie Borden took an axe/Gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done/Gave her father 41.”) To be historically accurate, 19 whacks befell Abby, who was her stepmom, with 11 landing upon Mr. Borden, both numbers that make catchy rhyming next to impossible. As usual, the facts disrupt the dramatic potential. However, Beeson’s sharp-edged psychological interpretation was no hatchet job. The critics and audiences loved the opera, and Maestro Coppola was lauded for his command of the challenging score.

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Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden in a scene from the made for TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden, 1975.

Television and movies revisit the story, mining the details for new ways to cut and wrap film adaptations that keep audiences titillated by Lizzie’s mysterious and misunderstood personality. Goth lovely Christina Ricci killed the role in Lifetime’s TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, inspiring a Lifetime mini-series about Lizzie’s life after the trial. In a creepy turn of events, Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched) portrayed the Fall River spinster in ABC’s 1975 airing of The Legend of Lizzie Borden. Later, a genealogist discovered Montgomery was Borden’s sixth cousin. Talk in Tinseltown today suggests a new feature film is in the works starring Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry, Big Love) with the trying-to-get-past-Twilight superstar Kristen Stewart as Lizzie’s maid, Bridget Sullivan.

Although it’s a bloody mess trying to understand why the public remains so morbidly fascinated with the Borden story on stage and screen, this fact remains: Lizzie performs well with acts.

Okay, Ladies, Now Let’s Get in Formation

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Former Next Generation Ballet Trainees. (Photo: Michelle Revels)

Ballet conjures images of tutus, tights, impossible-looking turns on tips of toes and gravity-defying mid-air leaps. If you’ve never taken a ballet class or had a little ballet beginner, then you may not realize those tricky combinations of flicks, kicks, twists, tippy-toe steps, glides, bends and hops emerge from a seriously old set of schematics precise and infallible enough to impress the most demanding engineer.

And those schematics depend on five simple foot positions.

“The ballet positions not only create a foundation for technique but are crucial for the linking of movement, so ballet appears seamless,” says Philip Neal, Dance Department Chair and Artistic Director of Next Generation Ballet.

Poster, New York City Ballet, 19601980

When skill at European court dances (ballet de cour) became so popular in the 1500s, instructors needed a technique. The court dances relied on the dancer being nimble, with the hip rotators turned so the feet shifted from face-forward to out-to-the-side. With feet and toes pointed outward and the hips rotated, dancers had a greater, more controlled, more fluid range of motion. They created, with this simple adjustment of hips and feet, something quite titillating: possibility for moving and moving across floors.

Eventually, a Parisian choreographer, Pierre Beauchamp, codified “turnout” of the hips and the five basic foot positions to improve strength and flexibility in turnout in the 17th century. Beauchamp’s boss, King Louis XIV, appointed Beauchamp and twelve others to set the artistic standards of classical ballet as we know it today. And did they.

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2015 Next Generation Ballet Summer Intensive dancers in class at the Straz Center. (Photo: Stormy Sea Studio)

Thus, ballet begins—not with 5, 6, 7, 8!—but with first, second, third, fourth and fifth. These five basic positions of the feet on the floor relative to the dancer’s body serve as the building blocks for every subsequent step, combination of steps, phrase, leap and combination of leaps and phrases. Next time you’re at a classical ballet, watch: every movement and pose begins and ends in one of these five steps.

Lest these simple-looking positions—feet together, feet apart, feet apart at a different angle, feet together again—belie their difficulty, first let us talk a little about what a dancer is going for in these basic positions. The trick is interior mastery of muscles and groups of muscles, connection with one’s center of gravity, execution of proper alignment and stance in which the pelvis and shoulder girdle must be in line with invisible vertical, horizontal, saggital (left/right) and frontal (front/back) planes. And, she or he must remember to “hold” the body with these particular but unnoticeable-to-the-audience forces:

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So, when you practice these positions in your class or you see dancers “working through the positions” in warm up or catch a glimpse of these building blocks in your next viewing of Swan Lake, know that there is much more than meets the eye. In fact, simply standing in first position using proper technique engages more than 20 muscles: the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, tensor fascia latae, adductor magnus, adductor longus, adductor brevis, pectineus, adductor gracillis, gluteus maximus, deep six lateral rotators, sartorius, rectus femoris, biceps femorus, quadriceps vastii, spinal extensors and transverse abdominus.

Plus you have to do all this while breathing and keeping a pleasant look on your face.

First position:

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Balls of the feet turned out completely, heels touch. Dancer attempts to create a straight line, or a 180-degree angle. “At barre, we begin with first position to establish turnout in the hips. It’s important not to force turnout from the knee down but rather at the pelvis,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Second position:

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Similar to first, but the heels separate by a length of 1 1/2 times the dancer’s foot. “Second position, a wider open stance, helps prepare stability and strength for jumps and larger scale movement,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Third position:

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Here, one foot is in front with the front foot touching the middle of the back foot. “Third is hardly used anymore, except perhaps in character movement,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

 Fourth position:

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Same as third, but feet are apart by a space of the dancer’s foot-length. Neal says, “It’s crucial as a preparation for turning.” (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Fifth position:

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Both feet touch with the toes of each foot reaching the heels of the other foot. “Fifth is the most valuable position of all, and the hardest to perfect,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Tip from Neal: “I teach that fifth position should be like a Ziploc bag. Each leg is color-coded like a sandwich bag, one leg is yellow, the other is green. In fifth, a tightly closed position, yellow and blue seal to make green, to seal in the freshness of the position! Think of the legs like crossed beams in a structure providing stability to a building.”

 

In any given classical ballet class worth its salt, instructors take dancers through several series of exercises working the feet, legs and hips through these positions. These building blocks define the placement of the feet on the floor and, eventually, define the placement of the dancer in the studio and on the stage. Proper technique from these five positions makes pushing from the floor for leaps and turns possible, and the extensive vocabulary of ballet begins with learning these five simple—but not easy—steps. To get ballet, you’ve got to get in formation.

Paper + Glue + Satin = Athletic Equipment

You Can Tell A Lot About A Woman By Her Shoes

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Photo by Soho Images.

Ballet, with its emphasis on gracefulness, classical music and tutus, is subject to a bevy of cultural misunderstandings, one of the most glaring is the conception that ballerinas are fragile dancing fairies, or Queen Faeries, depending upon the role. Not so. Just take a look at their only required equipment: the pointe shoe.

Let’s get this straight: Ballerinas are not nymphs, no matter how they appear in all those layers of twittering tulle. They are physical ninjas, gliding along the stage in endless bourres or whipping around silently in such things as Odile’s legendary 32 fouettes for Swan Lake (and then American Ballet Theatre’s Gillian Murphy insanely mixed it up with additional pirouettes, as if it needed to be more challenging?).

Unlike male dancers, who perform in ballet slippers, ballerinas must perform en pointe in a shoe constructed of little more than paper, glue and satin. In this shoe, she will balance all of her body weight on the tips of her toes, mostly between the big and second toes. She will endure bunions and broken nails, blisters and stress fractures, possible osteoarthritis and tendonitis and any number of wonky injuries to the Achilles tendon complex. She will execute a force up to 10 times her body weight on the platform of the shoe. Why? Because pointe shoes create the illusion of floating, of magic, of a lithesome otherworldly spirit who simply cannot remain earthbound, of the impossible being possible. Thus: ballet.

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To be fair, the early ballerinas, the ones emerging in the dance courts of Catherine de Medici and, later, of the impresario of France’s Royal Academy of Dance, Louis XIV, did not wear pointe shoes. In fact, they wore heels. After the French Revolution, the heels disappeared, but it wasn’t until a pivotal moment in 1795 when Charles Didelot invented a “flying machine” with wires to lift dancers to their toes that the first inklings of en pointe emerged. Audiences responded so strongly that choreographers began to incorporate more toe work into their dances until they and the dancers wanted to be uplifted wire-free.

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Marie Taglioni as Flore in Charles Didelot’s ballet Zephire et Flore. Hand colored lithograph, circa 1831.

Then, it happened.

Marie Taglioni, Italian ballerina extraordinaire, danced La Sylphide in 1832. During parts of her solo, through nothing more than the strength of her feet and legs, she lifted herself to the tips of her satin slippers, exhilarating the audience and causing European ballet-philes to receive her with Beatles-esque verve. So beloved was she of the Russians that they reportedly cooked her slippers and ate them with a sauce. Regardless, she changed ballet forever.

At the end of that century, the late 1800s, the “box” (the sturdy square tip) was added to satin slippers, and the basic pointe shoe design was set. Today, there are several tried-and-true makers of pointe shoes, and most of them make every single pair by hand. Yes, by hand. This attention to craftsmanship means that no two pair of pointe shoes are the same, and each set varies depending on the size and strength of the craftsman’s hands and the amount of glue he or she used. Freed’s of London makes more than 250,000 pairs of pointe shoes a year, each of these constructed individually.

When a ballerina receives a new pair of pointe shoes, the shoes are not yet fit for dancing nor do they come with the ribbons attached. Ballerinas must sew on their ribbons themselves to accommodate their ankles and foot shape, and they must “break in” the shoe, which means softening it just enough for dancing but not too much. Dancers can flex the shoe with their hands, slam the box in a door or pound it with a hammer, and scuff up the platform. However, when the shoe becomes too broken in, it is then “dead,” and the ballerina must use a new set of shoes. Some professional ballerinas may even use several pairs of shoes during one night’s performance. Pittsburgh Ballet Theater notes that a professional ballerina can go through 100 pairs of pointe shoes in one season, and their company spends at least $100,000 on pointe shoes per year. That’s astounding, but not as shocking as London’s Royal Ballet, whose pointe shoe budget averages $400,000 per year for around 8,000 pairs of shoes.

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An afternoon pointe class at the Patel Conservatory. Photo by Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

New NGB Artistic Director and Dance Department Chair Philip Neal Brings Legacy of Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine

In June, Philip Neal officially joined the Patel Conservatory as the artistic director for Next Generation Ballet and chair of the dance department, the position formerly held by Peter Stark.

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Jerome Robbins in rehearsal for West Side Story.

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George Balanchine and Arthur Mitchell in rehearsal.

George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins were to American dance what Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio were to baseball. Heavy-hitters, game-changers, larger-than-life personalities, Balanchine and Robbins hold some of the world records of great dance: Apollo, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, Jewels, Fancy Free, Afternoon of a Faun, West Side Story … their list of works goes on and on.

Dancers who emerged from New York City Ballet, where Balanchine and Robbins heralded the dawn of American ballet as an international artistic achievement, included Tanaquil LeClercq, Maria Tallchief, Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, Arthur Mitchell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jacques D’Amboise and Edward Villella.

A few generations later appeared a young, focused 12-year-old at NYCB’s training school, School of American Ballet (SAB), named Philip Neal.

During a master class at School of Richmond Ballet, Edward Villella hand-picked Philip for SAB. Philip, who trained at Richmond Ballet until he was 16, cut his teeth in SAB summer classes with the legendary teacher Stanley Williams. Often, Philip found himself in class surrounded by NYCB principals including Baryshnikov.

“My first day at the school, I knew,” Philip said in a recent interview with Caught in the Act. “I wanted New York. I wanted New York City Ballet. I realize a lot of 12-year-olds don’t know what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but I did.”

Philip continued to train at SAB during the summer, attending another school during the year, with his eyes always on a spot with New York City Ballet. At 19, he joined the company, immediately thrown into principal roles because his height matched the rather tall ballerinas suited to Balanchine’s style.

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Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal in Albert Evan’s “In a Landscape.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

His first rehearsal was with Jerome Robbins. “We were working on a piece of his called Ives, Songs. He put me in a demi-solo role, but I couldn’t do lifts. I was really skinny then. Jerry was hard on me in that rehearsal, so I went to Pumping Iron, a gym in El Barrio on the very Upper East side of New York and started working out. He was hard on me, but he pushed me to be better. I was 19, so in no time I was beefed up, lifting the girls, and like, ‘Jerry, look! I’ve been working out!’ and Jerry got a kick out of that.”

Philip arrived at SAB in the very last years of Balanchine’s life. Philip and his cohort group were the last generation of dancers to grace the halls while Balanchine still worked. When “Mr. B” emerged from a rehearsal room, Philip recalls, dancers silenced, the space filling up in reverential awe. “But, by the time I started with NYCB in 1987, he was gone. Even as a 12 year old, when I got to SAB, I could feel it in the walls, the creative power. The work he created was all around, living inside the place. I got to know Balanchine through the people, and we were the first ones to receive the choreography as it was being passed down.”

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Philip Neal in George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” Photo by Paul Kolnik for New York City Ballet.

Philip performed for two decades with NYCB, touring the world and training constantly in Balanchine’s and Robbins’ styles. “Jerry called me in on almost all of his rehearsals, so I was able to study, to train in his work. He was direct, he was always like “no, it is this way” whereas Balanchine was more of a figure-it-out-for-yourself choreographer, more open to his work adapting to different dancers. Balanchine has a little wiggle room, but Jerry? No.”

The yin-and-yang dynamic between Robbins and Balanchine is well-known in the dance world and often cited in historical accounts of the wildly prolific and popular era of NYCB during the duo’s heyday as the company’s artistic powers. In fact, it’s legendary. So, it is no small honor for Philip Neal, who began his career with NYCB in a Robbins rehearsal, to have performed in the choreographer’s beloved Dances at a Gathering at Robbins’ funeral. “The last thing Jerry worked on was a piece for [NYCB principle ballerina] Kyra Nichols and me, before he died. I know how lucky I am. I know how blessed my career in dance has been, how charmed. Of course there were struggles, and challenges and all that stuff you hear about, but I was so in love with ballet that I had blinders on for any drama that was going on around me. I lived for the dance. I felt more comfortable performing than doing anything else.”

When Philip left NYCB, both the Robbins and Balanchine Trusts engaged him as trust holder of the great choreographers’ works, what is known as a repetiteur, or, someone who has been approved by the choreographers’ trusts to set their works on other companies. Philip joined the direct lineage of these master dancemakers, and, now, he brings this legacy to the dancers studying at the Patel Conservatory. While it remains to be seen whether or not either trust will approve NGB in the lengthy process to get Robbins and Balanchine work staged, the gift of their technique and inspiration has found its way into the exceptional Patel Conservatory dance program.

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Philip Neal working with a student. Photo by Mike Munhill.

“I think it’s important for people to know I’m not turning this into SAB,” Philip said. “I’m kind of an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it guy, and so much is in place here already. So much is really good. Bringing the Balanchine and Jerome Robbins influence into the program here will help us be better at what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re a preparatory school. When dancers leave here, they should feel comfortable picking the company they want to go into because they’ve been technically prepared. Peter did an extraordinary job building this program, so my transition has been simple. The Popular Dance program is also fantastic. I want to bring more of the dance world here, giving the students as much information as possible. This is a very exciting time as we evolve.”

Truly. We welcome the legacy of Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine to Tampa, to the Straz Center, and we are honored to have the living history of these legendary choreographers shape our dance students at the Patel Conservatory.

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Next Generation Ballet dancers with Peter Stark and Philip Neal.

Diversity in Ballet

Many performing arts lovers shouted “Bravo!,” “Finally!” and “What Took So Long?” when American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland broke the oft-unspoken color barrier in the European-standards of ballet to become an international star. Her recent commercial for Under Armor went viral, forcing people to rethink their notions of ballet dancers as athletes and also as white women in tutus. Fortunately—for ballet and for all the dancers of color who want solo and prima places in ballet companies—Misty Copeland’s rise to public prominence has brought a new respect to the art form and a more public conversation about the experience of black and brown dancers in the world of ballet. Caught in the Act came across this recent article on Mashable to address the history and social challenges of this fact of life in American dance—one that, with our understanding and changing ideas—will hopefully soon turn into history instead of reality.

NEW YORK, New York — In three to five years, no one will be talking about diversity in ballet.

That’s according to Virginia Johnson, a founding member and artistic director of New York City’s famed Dance Theatre of Harlem. In a few years, she thinks it will be a boring topic “because it will have happened,” she says in a light but commanding voice. Soon, she says, the largely white world of ballet will be populated with dancers of color.

Soon — but not today. Not in 2015.

Today, the ballet world still has a race issue. Brown ballerinas are almost invisible, rarely in the spotlight. Pools of talent are left untouched, as major dance companies glide over people of color in favor of white dancers. Dancers of color don’t often get coveted principal or soloist roles, and browsing through the corps de ballet roster of renowned institutions like the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet shows that diverse swans are in short supply.

Johnson rests comfortably in her three- to five-year theory, though. She is in a position to push that change forward. Along with companies like the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, the Dance Theatre of Harlem is a well-known entity in the ballet world, founded in 1969 “shortly after the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” the site declares. Its mission statement is clear: “To present a ballet company of African-American and other racially diverse artists who perform the most demanding repertory at the highest level of quality.”

“Right from the beginning, this company started making people think different about ballet,” says Johnson.

She remembers her early days at New York University, cramming in church basement ballet classes on the weekend with dancer Arthur Mitchell. Once she found out he was starting his own company, she took a leave of absence from college and joined him at his Dance Theatre of Harlem. It was a bold idea in a tense dance era for people of color.

“People had told us, ‘You can’t do this,'” Johnson recalls. “All of us were in that place as warriors, who were like, ‘Yes we can, just give us a chance.'”

She’s been with the company 27 years now.

For the whole article, read here.

A View from the Feet

By guest blogger Carol Cohen, Mother Matryoshka performer for 5 years

Mother Matryoshkas on Morsani Hall stage at the Straz Center during Next Generation Ballet's Nutcracker.

Mother Matryoshkas on Morsani Hall stage at the Straz Center during Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Among the whip-thin ballerinas performing grand jetés and assemblés in the Russian Imperial ballet of the Nutcracker, loom the rotund, bouncing figures of the Mother Matryoshkas—eight Russian nesting dolls, appearing in descending order of height and girth. The Matryoshkas–meaning “little mother” in Russian–appear on stage in the dream sequence along with their “children,” the polichinelle acrobats.

Different productions of The Nutcracker include a Mother Ginger—typically performed by a tall, male performer with loads of make-up, and wearing a huge hooped skirt—from which the children run out. But the Nutcracker production at the Straz Center utilizes the nesting dolls as their symbol of family and holiday togetherness.

The Matryoshka costumes are constructed of a plastic web framework covered with 2 inch thick foam padding, elaborately painted on the outside. Inside at the top is a hardhat with a chin strap—in essence, the performer balances the costume on her head and steers with two door handles mounted on either side. Vision is limited to an eight-square-inch piece of mesh—the face part of the costume.

Visibility of those in the Mother Matryoshka role is limited to the mesh opening of the costume.

Visibility of those in the Mother Matryoshka role is limited to the mesh opening of the costume.

The largest of the dolls, the Mother of all mothers so to speak, has blinking eyes (operated by a lever inside) and an opening through which the performer flutters a fan at her entourage. The performer in this role can best practice by patting her head and rubbing her stomach in a clockwise motion.

Matryoshka dolls actually originated in Japan or China—depending on which website your cursor lands on—but their attraction is universal. Type “Matroyshka” into your search engine and you’ll find the dolls spanning all cultures and emblazoned on items as varied as nail files, measuring cups and iPhone cases.

Matryoshka dolls are one of the most popular souvenirs associated with Russia in the world today, as evidenced by their frequent appearance at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Giant inflatable Matryoshkas topped the snowy slopes of the skiing and snowboarding competitions, and special TV segments took viewers behind the scenes to Matryoshka factories.

So what does it take to be a Mother Matryoshka in Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker?

Top-notch dance skills? Well, not so much. Given the girth of each Mother M and a leg opening that is only 20 inches wide, movement is more akin to marching albeit with pointed toes. More subtle movement is lost on the audience, so there is a lot of rotating, some tilting and a few basic tap steps. More animated movements would be a recipe for disaster—conjuring up nightmare scenes of rolling off Morsani Hall stage in front of 2,000 audience members.

Inside of the Mother Matryoshka costume; the performer wears the hardhat --essentially balancing the costume to wear it.

Inside of the Mother Matryoshka costume; the performer wears the hardhat –essentially balancing the costume to wear it.

Long for the spotlight? All right, get your ankles ready for their close-up, Mr. DeMille. Because your feet and ankles are the only body parts that can be seen on-stage. Tell family and friends which number in line you arrive on stage to get your fair share of applause.

Prone to bouts of claustrophobia? This role is not for you. One of the costumes is brought into the auditions in September, expressly for this purpose. Seven of the eight Mother M roles are typically filled by adult students from the Patel Conservatory open dance program, with the smallest Mother M being a male dancer from the Patel Conservatory Youth Ballet.

Can’t commit to rehearsals? Nuh-uh—not going to work. Mother M’s have weekly rehearsals from September through October and then three times a week minimum up until performance time. While the steps are simple, performing on stage with limited visibility and mobility, and with sound cues muffled—in unison with seven others takes a lot of practice. Just as with all other performers, Artistic Director Peter Stark demands perfection.

Valerie Hirvela assists Karen Heinemann into her Mother Matryoshka costume for rehearsal.

Valerie Hirvela assists Karen Heinemann into her Mother Matryoshka costume for rehearsal.

So why, in the midst of a busy holiday season, take the time to be a Mother Matryoshka? Because it is an honor and a privilege to be part of a cast that provides a beloved holiday tradition for so many people. And it is a mother lode of fun!

Carol Cohen is a writer, marketer and hoarder of high-quality paper goods. She has been employed by the Straz Center for more than six years, and currently is the Communications Specialist in the Marketing Department. Carol has been an avid student of dance, theater and music at the Patel Conservatory since it opened in 2004. She and her husband Brad run a small business – MindMeld Marketing – that covers a myriad of projects. Carol never misses an opportunity to dress in costume. Ever.